Environmental progressives have been urging the federal government to address climate change for more than 30 years. Many of these efforts have focused on setting limits on the emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, and other gases collectively referred to as “greenhouse gases” or GHGs. Presidents George H.W. Bush, Clinton, and Obama all negotiated international treaties on global emissions, and Congress has considered numerous climate-related bills. None of these efforts, however, has resulted in binding emission caps for U.S. operations, and Senate efforts to pass a “cap and trade” bill have been dropped. As a result, some progressives advocate a new arena for this battle: the courts, with lawsuits against a group of companies to directly force them to reduce emissions.
There are four lawsuits based on the premise that a handful of American companies, all associated with energy use and production, can be held legally responsible for “global warming.” The suits claim that the companies engaged in operations or made products that contributed to the buildup of GHGs in the atmosphere, causing the earth to warm. The cases seek either reductions in emissions or payment for injuries caused by specific weather events, such as hurricanes and flooding, allegedly caused or made worse by climate change. The liability threat for these defendants is massive: billions of dollars in the current suits, injunctions against their operations, and new filings for future weather-related injuries.
For environmental progressives, the real purpose of this litigation is to use the threat of massive liability to force the companies to accept concessions on climate change policy. These lawsuits, first filed in 2004, were born of frustration with the political process, particularly under President Bush, for failing to take steps to combat climate change. Given the seeming demise of climate change legislation in the current Congress, many progressives have found achieving the same – or perhaps more stringent – policies in the courts an increasingly appealing option.